The Pearl

Disclaimer: This is the best I can do, Takahashi.

Chapter One

A tiny blade will sever the sutures of the neck, and when that joint, which binds together head and neck, is cut, the body's mighty mass crumples in a heap. No deep retreat conceals the soul, you need no knife at all to root it out, no deeply driven sound to find the vital parts; death lies near at hand…whether the throat is strangled by a knot, or water stops the breathing, or the hard ground crushes in the skull of one falling head long to its surface, or flame inhaled cuts off the course of respiration—be what it may; the end is swift.--Seneca

You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. --Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita


The Prince of the East was troubled.

Rumors had been spreading like wildfire amongst the demon lands. High ranking officials within the courts of the South had been assassinated, en masse. While the carnage never actually reached the steps of the Lord's house, he was certain that there was little reason to leave him unscathed. An alliance had been forged with the Western Lord, and in exchange for a substantial parcel of land, the South had been granted protection and aid against the rogue bandit wreaking havoc amongst the noble houses. The finest soldiers were set out, scouring the land village by village, until they returned to the Southern Lord and presented him with the head of the assassin. Eternally grateful and indebted to the Western Lands, the Southern Lord rewarded his new benefactor handsomely. Peace returned to the minds of the nobles, and the alliance was bound in stone, held forfeit only upon the death of the Lord of the West.

But now, strange happenings were afoot in the East. The general in command of the great Eastern army had been found decapitated in his bath not but a month ago. And only last week had the chief advisor and his wife been riding through the countryside, returning from the Eastern Palace, to both be discovered dead from poisonous arrows through their necks and chests.

He had asked his father for advice. The Eastern Lord was not known for his wisdom and foresight, but as the heir to the throne, Setsuna was desperate. After much begging, he had been granted extra guards to occupy his shiro, and protect him against any emerging threat that might be creeping through the land once more. This had granted him a modicum of relief, until he received word from the South just this morning.

The messenger claimed that the supposed head of the assassin was false, and that the Western Lord had tricked the South with it. Those few who had been witness to the attacker claimed that it had not been a demon, but a human. As preposterous as it sounded, the witnesses insisted that no youki or any kind of demonic aura was present excepting for the demons who had been killed. Setsuna inclined himself to quietly doubting this accusation; after all, what human alive could venture undetected into the homes of the wealthiest and most powerful demons in the land, then kill them and escape completely free from capture? Still, the prince was quick to agree that the assassin remained at large, and that the head had merely been a ruse to pacify the distressed Southern Lord. Something was to be said against the Western Lord, for sure. He was quite…different from the other nobility in all of the lands. Those who claimed to trust him did so mostly out of fear.

After supper, the Southern messenger had quietly proposed a treaty on behalf of his Lord master. The suggestion was that the two lands quietly join forces in searching out and exterminating this pest amidst their nobility, then confront the Western Lands as a unified front, demanding land from him in exchange for their protection.

It was something Setsuna needed to mull over. Firstly, he was not exactly the party to be discussing matters such as this with; alliances and trade agreements were still under the realm of his father, the acting Lord of the East. As an heir, Setsuna was afforded little responsibility and almost no involvement in the political affairs of his land. However, he knew that the Eastern Lands had always been at odds with the West, long before the rise of the current Inu no Taishio. If the plan succeeded, then he would have succeeded where his father had failed for centuries. It would undoubtedly prove his strength and value as a leader, and perhaps he would be granted governorship of a small province as a reward. But if the plan failed…

Jumping into war was not Setsuna's cup of tea. The demon was tall and slender, and not exactly built for fighting. He admittedly was not well schooled in military tactics, and had only found himself on the battle field twice in his life, and both times were to merely observe. Wearing armor had always felt constricting to the young moth demon; he much preferred to have his wings unfettered than to be folded and squished inside a metal envelope. The weight of this decision burdened him now, and he had become too dispassionate for flight. Instead, he walked the outer wall that guarded the mansion from attack. Impatiently, he rested his chin in his hand as he leaned an elbow against the lip of the wall. His black eyes clouded over with thought, while his fair blue hair grew gradually more and more unruly in the wind. Looking out on the horizon as it rapidly darkened, the young prince Setsuna was soon absorbed within the walls of his own mind.

Until he heard a small, feminine voice.

"Please," she begged, "I seek an audience with your lord, so that I might beg shelter from him on this night."

Setsuna craned his torso down to see the owner of the melodic voice. The mere sound of it had jarred him completely out of…whatever it was that he had been thinking, and now had him practically falling over the wall, trying to hear more from the lovely throat.

She was riding a horse, and a fine one at that; a little black Persian, if he wasn't mistaken, and it was outfitted with some of the most elaborate tack he'd ever seen. Silver plating glistened across the bridle and saddle, and delicate white silk fringe hung underneath the forelock, shielding the dark eyes of the animal. As for the lady, Setsuna couldn't quite make out what she looked like, on account that she was practically swimming in one layer of silk after another. Her fine layered brocade robes screamed nobility and affluence, and their number alluded that the family was not shy about flaunting their good fortune. Her face was hidden from view by a white paper parasol, painted with the picture of a butterfly.

"Jiro!" Setsuna called down to his head guard. "Report to me what this is about!"

The flustered guard startled at the sound of his lord's voice, then searched about in confusion to find just where the voice was coming from. Standing directly beneath the prince, the guard tilted his head back and saluted. "My lord! This hime requests an audience with you in regards to---"

"This Setsuna has heard what the lady is here for," the prince snapped.

The guard flopped his mouth open and closed like a fish, not sure quite what to do with this information.

The demon heir snorted in disgust. "Well!" he demanded. "Why haven't you escorted the lady inside as she has requested!"

Jiro jumped at his lord's harsh tone, and nearly tumbled backwards in scrambling back to his post. Clumsily, he managed to open the gate through the wall, and took the reins to lead the horse within.

It was at that moment that the hime moved her parasol and gazed up at the prince. Setsuna felt like he had been punched in the chest, and had all the air knocked out of him; the lady was truly stunning. Her lips were painted a deep red, and nothing more rested upon her pale, flawless skin. The heart-shaped face was crowned with elaborately styled chestnut hair, folded and pinned on top of itself many times. Two wide, almond shaped brown eyes sparkled as they returned eye contact with their admirer, and the red lips gently curved into a smile, before she disappeared from view.

It was all Setsuna could do to keep from tripping over himself as he turned and took to the air in haste to greet the lady with proper respect and décor. He had not missed the signs; the colors she wore were from a high house in the East. Perhaps, some Eastern noble was earnestly seeking the aide of the young prince against the threat of the assassin. After all, if he had in fact sent this beautiful lady to plead his cause, he must have known it to be nearly impossible to refuse a voice as beautiful as hers. Setsuna would have to be on his guard then, but that did not mean he would spoil his chances at enjoying such fine company.

Hastily descending into the inner courtyard, Setsuna immediately began barking orders to have food prepared and a change of clothes made ready for himself. He would receive his visitor in the grand hall, and there entertain her wishes.

Smiling broadly to himself, Setsuna decided that facing off the West was a small price to pay to become a governor over his people.


The lady was being coy.

Her face, which Setsuna had been taken by when he first glimpsed upon it, was carefully shielded behind a paper fan. This accessory also bore a similar appearance to her parasol, only now the picture was smaller, and there were two butterflies, one left and one right.

He was nearly going mad trying to figure out who she was. He knew he'd seen her before—eyes as striking as hers were not easily brushed aside. Even now, they haunted him whenever she blinked. She seemed to be well aware of this power, for she closed her eyes very slowly and deliberately before opening them again.

"What brings you to my doorstep, unescorted, on this night fair hime?" the prince asked, trying to sound as charming as possible.

The lady moved her fan, but quickly covered her face with the floor as she bowed low. "Dono-sama," she chimed, "I beg forgiveness for my most improper appearance. My escort was attacked, and it is by great fortune that I am made it safely here."

Sestsuna returned a short, functionary bow, hoping it would raise the beautiful face he knew she was deliberately hiding from him. It worked, but just as she fully rose the fan went right back into place, shielding her from his eager gaze. The prince snorted in aggravation.

"This one would humbly ask shelter of you, my lord," the hime continued, "and, in return, I can promise a handsome reward from my father, who will be most grateful to learn of my good health under your protection." Her voice seemed to falter in her final words, and her eyes became glassy as they frantically darted back and forth.

Something was not right.

The prince stood, unfurling his wings in full and crossing his arms over his chest. He meant to look noble, and intimidating, instead of callow, and uncertain. Who was this creature? She wasn't a demon, or at least, she wasn't a demon he was familiar with. She most certainly was not a human; no mortal scent of life swiftly moving towards death dared to stain her fine fragrance. But…she was still suspect.

"This Setsuna would be most pleased to help you," he answered, guardedly. "But only on the condition that you tell me the truth."

At this, the hime let out a gentle gasp. Her eyes widened, and her hand trembled. She's going to drop the fan, Setsuna realized gleefully. And not a moment later, did she hurl the small object aside. However, this action was only mean to give her full means to prostrate herself before the young lord, in a low, humble bow. Setsuna ground his teeth.

"My lord!" the lady sobbed. "I can only ask that you consider granting my father forgiveness in this one's part! He only wanted to protect me!"

"Protect you?" Setsuna grunted, lowering his wings. "What do you mean by that?"

The lady shuddered, trying to calm her gentle tears. Gods, the demon thought, even her wails of sorrow sound like music. "The assassin, dono-sama," the girl finally managed. "My father received a threat that I was to be the next target."

The prince felt his youki flare with his rage. Now this villain was openly threatening the nobles of his land? Was there no end to this treachery? Silently, Setsuna resigned himself to signing the treaty with the South the next morning. After, of course, he had received an adequate amount of information in regards to the assassin from this damsel in distress.

The demon prince knelt in front of the groveling lady. "Do not fear," he boldly reassured her, "you will be protected by me this night." He smiled, proud of himself for sounding so brave and strong. This had got to be winning him some points.

Slowly, the hime uncurled herself into a sitting position. With no fan, she was fully uncovered to his gaze. Her eyes were slightly heavier, and her cheeks flushed from her crying, but she was still the perfect beauty he had seen outside of his palace walls. And now, curling onto those full red lips, was the same gentle smile she had given him before she was escorted inside.

"I give you my greatest thanks, my lord," she chortled, "and my father, your humble servant and vassal Oki-sama, offers the same as well."

Oki…Oki…why does he sound familiar? the prince muddled. Ah, yes. Water demon. Far, far east, keeps mostly to himself, but always pays his taxes. Didn't know he had any kids though, Setsuna thought, scratching his chin. He looked to the young lady, smiling at him with all the adoration and devotion of a proper subject. I must remember to visit him when I am governor, the demon mused. Letting his eyes fall downward to take in more of the beautiful woman's features, he was immediately attracted to the bauble bound tightly to the girl's neck. It was a snow white pearl, roughly the size of a sparrow's egg, held flush against her throat by a white silken cord. Water demon definitely, he concluded, noting the strange aura the pearl gave off. Moving on further, he noticed several of the layers she had been wearing before had been shed, though she still wore three robes over her fine kimono. The outermost layer was a light sea foam green, and with each progressing layer the shade grew darker, ending with the deep emerald of her kimono, belted with a white obi. The color complimented her features splendidly, bringing out the deep brown vibrancy of her hair and eyes. Eyes that Setsuna once again found himself entranced by.

"My lord?" the hime questioned, breaking the long silence that the prince just realized he had caused.

"What, may I ask," he stammered, "is your name?" There, nice save, he congratulated himself.

"This one is called Naoko," the lady replied, bowing forward slightly, then lifting her head once more. "I must again thank you for your hospitality, my lord---"

"Setsuna," the prince interrupted, "my name is Setsuna."

"Setsuna-sama," Naoko pronounced. "Thank you, Setsuna-sama."

He was almost giddy with excitement. This whole situation was looking to bring about good fortune in his life. He would dazzle the lady with his holdings tonight, then tomorrow as she was safely escorted back to her home, under heavy guard of course, he would sign the treaty and capture the assassin that was plaguing his lands. They would then corner the Western Lord with this new evidence, and force him to surrender much of his lands to the East and the South. Naturally, with the new land, his father would need help bringing it under his command; that would be where Setsuna would step in and graciously accept his father's praise and gift of the new territory. With his new found power, he would return to old Oki's house, court the girl, wed her, and live happily ever after with a new title, a trophy bride, and 2 or 3 kids. And quite handsome ones at that, he gleefully imagined.

The hime touched his hand with her finger tips, and Setsuna realized that he had once again left her hanging in a long moment of silence. He really needed to keep a firm hold on the moment. After all, he had to impress her before he could do all the other things he had planned. Standing, he unfurled his wings fully and held out his broad hand to the lady, who placed her small, slender one on his palm in return. With that, she rose to her feet as well, and stood beside him without removing her hand from his.

"Come," the prince swelled with pride, "and this Setsuna will show you to your room. Then, might I ask you to join me for some tea and a light meal?"

The hime smiled and nodded graciously. "That would be nice," she softly answered, batting her thick lashes.

Maybe 5 kids, Setsuna amended, leading the lady on a tour of his palace.


By the time the young prince settled himself into bed that night, he had lost count of how many children he wanted to make, or at least attempt to make, with the enchanting hime. It was all he could do to tear himself away from her side as they parted for the night. She was everything a lady of fine breeding was supposed to be: beautiful, soft-spoken, lovely, graceful, poised, obedient, elegant, rich, beautiful…and he had every reason on his side to claim her as his wife. True, her youki was depressingly weak, but she made up for that in everything else, like being so damn beautiful. Right now, at this very moment, Setsuna was not above leaving and banging down the door of Oki, slaying the assassin, and demanding Naoko's hand in payment.

"Naoko," he whispered. The obedient child.

He'd made a clever joke about that when he showed her to her room before departing for the night.

"As much as it pains me, Naoko-sama," he'd said, "I must ask you to retire to your quarters so that I may alert the guards to stand watch."

"As you wish, my lord," she replied, smiling cutely, almost like she was puckering her lips.

Setsuna felt his heart try to beat its way out from behind his ribs. A bit of nervous laughter solved that. "Your father named you well," he tittered, ruffling his blue hair to keep himself from touching her lovely face. "Tell me, must you obey everything you're told to do?"

The hime blushed and playfully batted her eyes as she looked down and to the side. "Only if my lord wishes it so," she murmured softly.

If the guards hadn't come around the corner at that precise second, they would have stumbled upon their lord passionately ravishing the lady in a soul searing kiss. Or at least, he'd imagined.

Now, he was alone in the dark, and slightly agitated that the gentle fragrance of his lovely guest would not seem to leave his nose. It was going to be a painfully long night. Perhaps, he could simply keep himself occupied by devising plans to keep the lady at his palace for a spell longer. Kill her horse, then tell her it ran away and they have no other horses? No, she'd seen the stable for sure. Make up a story about receiving urgent news from her father, begging her to stay a few nights longer, and maybe pick up a fine youkai husband while she was out? Nah, too desperate sounding. Throw caution to the wind and propose to her at dawn? While that was indeed the scariest of all the options, it had a distinct advantage: it was romantic, and women loved romantic shit. That one might work after all.

A floorboard creaked and Setsuna bolted upright, fangs bared and claws at the ready. "Who's there!" he demanded angrily.

He was greeted by silence initially, and he thought that perhaps he'd only imagined the noise and was just entirely on edge from the day. But there was that unmistakable twinge he felt in the base of his neck, signifying the presence of another's aura. Narrowing his eyes and searching the dark, he was startled when his intruder suddenly spoke.

"My lord?" Naoko whispered.

Setsuna nearly cheered. Yes, it was incredibly improper for a lady of fine breeding to come knocking on the doors of a male at all hours of the night, undoubtedly seeking his attentions. But he could forgive her of her mistake in the morning.

"What is it?" he softly called out. "What's wrong?"

"I…I felt…scared," she stammered, voice moving closer to where he was laying.

Setsuna smirked. Before he signed the treaty tomorrow, he would get up extra early and offer a prayer of thanks at his ancestor's shrine. "I told you I will protect you," he replied in a voice smooth as silk.

"But you were not there," the girl insisted in a slightly distressed tone. She was kneeling beside his mattress now, and he could see her hands on the floor within the slit of light that fell from his door.

He had to play this carefully. He couldn't be sure if she was being sincere, or speaking in code. Either she was really scared, or really eager to jump in the sack with him, in which case, he still had a chance for the second if it was the first.

"Would you feel safer," he cooed, "if you were here, in my arms instead?"

"Oh yes!" the hime sighed, and Setsuna's heart chimed with the breeze from her lips.

The demon casually scooted to the side, leaving adequate room for the hime on his futon so that she wouldn't feel smothered by him—immediately, anyway. She gracefully unfolded her body in and under the covers next to his, before shyly wiggling closer and placing her little hand on his bare chest.

"Better?" Setsuna squeaked.

"Oh yes," the girl sighed again. "Oh, much better. Yes."

Tentatively, the demon curled his arm down her spine, stopping his fingers at the small of her back for modesty's sake. She responded by snuggling closer, and moving her hand from his chest to his cheek. He immediately did the same, though a little overzealously, and he quickly amended himself by petting her cheek.

"Oh, thank you, Setsuna-sama," the lady murmured. "I'm sure my father would be willing to give you anything you wish in reward for my safe-keeping."

"Anything?" the demon yelped. Why had his voice suddenly decided to break? He'd been through puberty almost 75 years ago.

The girl nodded against his shoulder, and he could see her gleaming eyes staring up at him. That was his cue; he was getting some tonight!

"Naoko-chan," he whispered, before pulling her into a kiss.

She smiled, and then stabbed him.

Stabbed him!

"What the fuck!" the demon bellowed. He was instantly greeted with a small foot to his jaw, knocking him for a loop.

"Don't call me 'chan'," gritted the girl, swinging down her once invisible blade. Setsuna managed to roll out of the way, but not without getting a slice across the chest and one of his wings split in return.

Gods how could he have been so blind! Of all the dirty tricks! So this was how the assassin made her way across Japan—by seducing all of the lords and nobles in her path! And the Southern Lord had been right in insisting she wasn't a demon, because this girl clearly was not a demon. But she wasn't clearly a human either. She wasn't clearly anything, except a killer, and coming his way again.

Setsuna opened his mouth and spat out enough poison to make his own father tear up. Unfortunately, clutching the wounds on his chest made him forget to spread his natural defense in all directions; a slice across the back quickly brought him to his senses.

"You bitch!" he howled. Why weren't the guards outside his door coming to his aid?

A swift kick to the shoulder that had been stabbed had him hurtling backwards through the wall and into the hallway. On the floor, with blood pooling from their slit throats, lay the answers to his question. Shit, he wailed to himself, I'm gonna die, aren't I? Abandoning any hope for defense, the prince turned and ran for help.

The girl was quickly on him, apparently not too keen on this running away idea. Setsuna's cry was almost high enough to be out of the girl's range of hearing, but she could detect a shrill squeal from the moth demon as she sliced his wings into confetti. He fell to the floor, still clutching his chest.

"Who are you?" he coughed, searching frantically for his attacker. "Why are you doing this?"

"Why am I doing this?" she mocked, standing before him. She was wearing a skin-tight black outfit, similar to what a taijiya would wear, but without the additional armor. Her face and hair were tucked into a black cloth mask that had a slit opening for her eyes. Her still beautiful eyes that still haunted him, even now as he knew she was going to kill him. Setsuna sobbed.

"Just doin' my job," she grunted, swinging the blade and slicing his head cleanly off.

The heir to the throne of the Eastern Lands was dead. Mission almost accomplished.

She knew that there had been a heightened amount of security in the palace before she even came. To think that she could get away without alerting a few guards would be ridiculous. But this…this mess was entirely different. They had surrounded her before the decapitated body of their lord hit the floor. But not before she was in the air, kicking through the wall and back into the bedroom.

Thank the gods that rice paper walls are fashionable, she silently praised. A few more hops and she was out the window. A few more hops and she was right back to being surrounded with guards. This was getting to be annoying.

There is a predictability to fighting soldiers that made her heart leap with joy. If she attacked one, the others would kindly wait until he fell, before scooting one over and taking their comrade's place. And while she didn't have time to kill every single one of them in alphabetical order, she did thankfully only have to kill seven before a wide enough opening in the crowd appeared, and she could escape. Not having to watch your back was something she was happy to take for granted.

Until the arrows started flying.

"Shit!" she shrieked, kicking up her run. Getting shot was not something she had factored into the plan. Step one: kill the prince, had already been carried out splendidly. Step two: grab the horse, was now underway. Yanking down the cloth from over her mouth, she stuck two fingers under her tongue and gave a shrill whistle. From the stables just ahead, she could hear her beloved gelding raising a fuss. Banging noises signified he was kicking the place apart. He'd be out of there in no time. That meant it was time for step three:

Blow the place to hell.

All along their little tour, she had been able to walk closely to the walls, laying a thin fuse that led out to the courtyard. From there, the fuse would lead to the mother-load of explosives she'd managed to smuggle in, pinned inside of her layered robes. As uncomfortable as the fashion may be, it was not without its own practicality. Now, to light the fuse, and release bedlam. Crouching low, the girl scurried to the wall, quickly finding the end of the fuse she'd laid. Fumbling fingers produced flint from her shoe, and she hastily struck the two stones against one another.

A battle cry to her back alerted her to the approach of more guards. She sighed, and half-heartedly laughed in her aggravation. Why did they have to announce themselves so loudly? They'd really have a better shot at killing more people if they were just quiet about it. But that wasn't a tip she was about to pass on. Whipping around, she dropped the flint and sliced out her blade to greet her first attacker. He crumpled to the side, leaving her with three more.

The second one had a spear, and apparently was well seasoned in using it. She only managed to turn her head in time, but he had ripped off her mask with the well aimed spearhead. That was a little too close for comfort, she decided, and slashed him in half at the torso while his back was still to her. It was a dirty tactic, and he had deserved a better death, but she really didn't have time to dispense these warriors with honor. There was a deadline. And where was that horse?

Guards three and four held swords, just like guards one through seventy bagillion. They were coming at her together, a clear sign that they were rookies, and fresh from the training field. While attacking one by one was monotonous, it at least carried the threat against the foe that yet one more would take the place of those already fallen. With those kind of odds, the enemy stood to be exhausted long before the soldiers. But these two were afraid, and found courage in each other. She thought it rather fitting then that they would die together. And at each others' hands.

Flipping neatly out of the way, she circled and managed to break them apart and stand in-between them. With a threatening flick of her sword, they were charging at her, and she rolled away in a childish somersault while they impaled themselves together. The bonds of brotherhood were hard to sever, she supposed. Too bad she didn't have a brother.

Back to the big boom. And the horse. Where was the goddamn horse?

"Kado!" she screamed. "Stop horsin' around and get over here!" Only when she bent back over to work the flint again did she realize her pun. Snickering at her own joke, she finally managed to get a spark large enough to light the fuse. And as if right on cue, Kado the horse galloped out of the stable, over the porch, and into the courtyard. Thankfully, the clods this prince called stable-hands had listened to her when she ever so sweetly requested that the bridle remain on the horse. Kado could be quite an ass without it.

Hey, another horse joke.

There was little time to laugh, as another throat ripping cry heralded more guards. She'd have to stay and fight, at least until the fuse got well on its way. Considering she got paid nothing to do this, imagining herself demanding a raise when she got home was kind of silly. She'd just have to yell a lot. That would teach them.

Unfortunately, these guards were not being very sportsman like. They weren't attacking her at all; they were targeting Kado. That would throw her plan completely to the gutter if the horse were to get injured or killed. Out of the eight of them, she stabbed two in the back before they would turn around and fight her and not the horse. And, as a good mount, he helped where he could, kicking and stomping at the soldiers waiting patiently in line to kill the fortress invader. But she was just a little on edge herself, what with the impending explosion and all, and fighting nervous made her fight sloppy. An arm was cut, deep, throwing her off balance and causing it to take entirely too long to kill the remaining guards. At this rate, she'd be lucky to make it out in once piece.

Vaulting onto the horse's back, she grabbed hold of the reins in her left hand, while still brandishing her sword in her right. No time to make sure all of her cuts were clean kills; anyone who got in her way just might have to writhe in agony for awhile, before they got blown up.

She made it through the inner wall when she wondered if the fuse had made it. Perhaps some guard in the palace had seen it, and snuffed it out. There was no time to go back and check, but that would make getting away a lot harder. More people would be following her, which meant it would take her longer to get home than she wanted.

And that always made her cranky.

But through the second wall and she heard it; the cracking discharge of way too much black powder igniting and combusting. Rubble began spewing through the air, hitting her in the back like some weird hail as she galloped away. Over her shoulder, she could hear at least twenty of the men pursuing her, on foot. Two of them were on horses. If she could get far enough away, and give a long enough chase, she would only have to worry about the two horsemen. After that, it was easy enough to double-back her trail so as to confuse any soldiers who did manage to catch up, before home sweet home.

She really loved this job. Perversely, almost. There had to be something wrong with her.


Kado had sustained a shallow cut on his flank during the final oo-rah of the fracas. Once in the stable, the girl wearily treated her mount with a warm poultice kept at the ready. He didn't like it much, and tried to nip her shoulder while she slathered the medicine on. A smack to his velvety nose was enough to get him to quit complaining. Anyway, she was in no mood to deny him his extra carrots; he had really done well today.

With a weary sigh, she felled her back against the wall before sliding down to the hay covered floor of the stable. The smell of horse was always calming to her, almost as much as gunpowder, but not quite. Horse was warm, and alive. It promised soft skin, and smooth, fine hair to accompany its earthen aroma. Gunpowder just smelled like gunpowder, and not much else. Maybe a little bit of steel, but nothing entirely pleasant. Horse was definitely a pleasant smell.

Horse was trying to smell her back.

"Hey!" she fussed, pushing away Kado's long nose from her face. He nickered, and knew she was only pretending to be annoyed with him, so he shoved his nose against her once more, lipping her neck. "Cut it out, carrot breath!" she giggled, scratching his forelock while hugging his long face. Sighing, she nuzzled her cheek against her friend.

"We made it," she whispered, wearily. After a mission was completed was the only time she allowed herself to doubt its success. Right now, sitting on the stable floor, she counted all the things that had gone wrong, and could have resulted in her death. There was the whole lie about Oki, hoping that it was indeed true that he was a hermit and a loyal vassal. Then there was the bedroom—gods! That demon had been none to happy when he realized there was someone in his room unannounced. The swell of youki almost made her choke. Who'd have thought the floor would squeak? Thank heavens he thought she was cute, because that was an easy save. Then the guards, the endless guards that all wanted her dead, followed by the fuse that didn't want to be lit, and the explosion that tried to club her to death. The two soldiers on horseback had been a piece of cake; not too many demon warriors were trained to fight while riding. The ideal of the demon world was to go at it with hands and swords and fangs. Horses were for show.

Kado bumped his mouth to her collarbone, before lifting his head and resuming his snack. Absently, she lifted her hand to rub the knot he'd made, only to find the pearl was gone.

She wanted to scream. If it fell off somewhere back there, she was never going to find it! She knew she had needed something more secure than just a little scrap of silk, but no! Silk it was! Jumping to her feet, she clutched her neck and scanned the hay for anything remotely pearl-like. Nothing there. Her panicking hand slid up Kado's withers, gripping a clump of mane and bracing herself to jump back on. But the hand at her neck slid lower, and found what she was so desperately afraid had been lost. The ribbon had merely loosened, and the pearl had gone down the front of her shirt a little. It had just fallen out of the cradle of her collarbone, was all. It was safe. Crisis over.

She heaved a sigh and simultaneously fell to the floor on her bottom, before pitching over onto her side. Tonight had been too stressful, and she was just too tired. She's sleep in the stable tonight.

Besides, this way, she'd be able to cry without anyone hearing but Kado.


The morning greeted her with a slimy foot in the face.

"You stupid girl!" an all too familiar, all too annoying voice squawked. "What are you doing out here in the barn? You stink!"

She sat up, blinking her bleary eyes and smirking all too devilishly. "And you smell like fish," she shot back. Stretching her arms and yawning, she managed to get enough blood flowing to stand up and check Kado's wound. It was doing much better. That was good; he'd be healed in no time.

"The master wants to see you," her walking alarm clock demanded.

She snorted and slouched in disgust. "Can't I take a bath first?" she whined. "You said I stink."

"The master wants to see you, now," the shrill little voice insisted. "He made the now part very clear, now go!"

"Alright, alright," she grumped, jogging out of the stable and into the full sunlight. Wow. Bright.

She could hear his footsteps along the gravel pathway before she could clearly see him. She'd know those footsteps even if she was blind. They were…well, they were in just about every memory she'd ever had. And she'd do anything for the still out of focus silhouette who owned them.

"Mission accomplished, m'lord!" she chirped, taking a jaunty bow.

The demon lord finished his approach, then placed his large, clawed hand on her shoulder.

Sesshomaru's face was as schooled as ever, even as he searched her body for wounds. "It's good to have you home, Rin."